HAND TOOL BUYING GUIDE FOR TRADITIONAL WOODWORKERS
By Joshua Farnsworth
WHICH WOODWORKING HAND TOOLS DO YOU NEED TO GET STARTED?
Below you’ll see my list of the very basic hand tools that you will need to accumulate in order to start building the most basic woodworking projects. When I say “basic” or “beginner” I don’t mean that you’ll eventually need to upgrade to better tools. These tools are as good as they get. I’m simply referring to the absolute first tools that you need to get started. When you’re ready you can follow the blue buttons to get help with choosing hand tool features, brands, & models.
1. Buy or Build a Workbench
A workbench has always been the center of a traditional woodworker’s universe. If you’re really on a tight budget you can get away with almost anything that allows you to secure your wood in place for planing and sawing.
However, I would recommend that you purchase (or build…if you’ve got the skill) a very heavy & sturdy workbench, with at least a 3″ solid top, strong supportive base legs, and two strong wooden face vices. Wooden vices will securely hold your wood with an incredible pressure without marring the wood.
2. Buy a Jack Plane
A Jack Plane is a middle size “bench plane” (i.e. planes that are used so often that they are usually on your workbench). If you’re on a budget a jack plane can temporarily be used for several functions: (1) rough stock removal (if you buy a second iron/blade and shape it with a curved “camber”), (2) jointing board edges (as long as they aren’t too long), and (3) smoothing the boards.
You’ll eventually want to purchase a dedicated smoothing plane (No. 4) and jointer plane (No. 7), but a Jack Plane will let you get started working! A low angle Jack Plane would be ideal for beginners and professionals.
3. Buy a Block Plane
Block planes have become one of the most often-used tools in a traditional-style workshop. They can be used to trim your joints, put champhers on edges, trim end grain, etc. I would recommend finding a low angle block plane, because the low angle lets you cut difficult grain more easily.
I personally prefer a low angle rabbet block plane because it allows me to trim right up against a tenon cheek or other joints. My tool buying guide goes into more detail about the features and brands that you should look for when purchasing a good quality block plane.
4. Buy Two Handsaws: Rip and Cross Cut
Handsaws (often called “Panel saws”) are long, thin saws with a comfortable wooden handle. They are used for rough dimensioning of your lumber. Handsaws come in two tooth configurations: “Rip” (cuts along the grain…like a chisel) and “Cross Cut” (cuts across the grain…like a knife). You will need both.
Handsaws can be very affordable (as little as $5 a piece), but you need to know what you’re looking for. My handsaw buying guide will help you know which brands & models to look out for at your local flea markets or on eBay.
5: Buy Three Backsaws: Dovetail Saw, Carcass Saw, & Tenon Saw
Unlike handsaws, “backsaws” are used for fine accurate work while making wooden joints (like dovetail joints). The thin metal saw plates are made stiff with steel or brass “backs”.
Your first backsaws should be (1) a dovetail saw used for cutting joinery along the grain (rip teeth), (2) a “carcass saw” used for cutting across the grain (cross cut teeth), and (3) a larger tenon saw used for cutting deeper cuts, like tenon cheeks, along the grain (rip teeth). All three saws are used very, very often in my workshop. You can start off with a dovetail saw, then expand to the others when you run into the need.
6. Buy a Miter Box and Miter Saw
A good miter box & saw will enable you to cut your wood to very accurate & square lengths. This will especially save you a lot of time in trying to square your board ends when building boxes/tool chests. The long miter saw glides back and forth through a saw frame.
The frame’s angles can be changed to enable you to cut perfect miter joints (think picture frames) and many other joints. I use my miter saw as much as any other saw in my workshop. I’ve bought them used for as little as $15. But be willing to spend quite a bit more for this workhorse.
7. Buy a Coping Saw
The very affordable coping saw (around $20) is regularly used for rough cutting shapes in the board, but especially for removing waste from dovetail joints (one of the most common wood joints). An affordable coping saw will work just fine as long as you have pleanty of replacement blades on hand (also very affordable).
Visit my hand saw buying guide for more detail on brands & features to look for when purchasing a coping saw.
8. Buy a Bench Chisel Set
Don’t cheap out on chisels. A high quality set of bevel edge bench chisels (new or vintage) will last you for years and will be used on nearly any project imaginable. I’ve used some descent affordable plastic handle bench chisels, but highly prefer lighter wooden handle chisels with excellent steel.
A good set of 5-7 bench chisels (doesn’t have to match) will get you going right away. Down the road you’ll eventually add some paring chisels, but you can pare with bench chisels to some extent. You can also just start off with the sizes required for your first projects, then expand as needed.
9. Buy a 1/4″ Mortise Chisel
To start off you only need a 1/4″ mortise chisel (or some size close to it). You don’t ned a whole set of mortise chisels. Mortise chisels (also spelled “mortice chisels”) are used for chopping mortises (rectangular holes) into the side of your board for insertion of a tenon. “Mortise and Tenon” is a very common and very strong joint.
I prefer the English style “pig sticker” mortise chisels because of their strength and weight. My chisel buying guide shows where to find these chisels and what to look for when buying them. Not all antique mortise chisels are a perfect 1/4″, but find a fraction close to 1/4″.
10. Buy a 6-inch Combination Square
A very good and accurate 6-inch combination square is used for so, so many tasks in my workshop, including checking the squareness of boards (when planing them to final dimension), scribing dovetail joints & many other joints, and much, much more.
Don’t follow the temptation to cheap out and buy a very affordable combination square. Because, like me, you will replace it because of its inacuracy. If you want your joinery to fit dead on, then you need to scribe it dead on. Unfortunately there is really only one company that makes a super accurate combination square. But fortunately it is amazing and I use it daily.
11. Buy or Build a Try Square
If you’re not confident enough to build your own try square at this point you should purchase a good metal try square (somewhere between 9 and 12 inches). It’ll be used for scribing square lines down the face of your boards, such as a line for where to cut with your saw.
Most try squares that I’ve found (used or new) are actually a perfect 90 degrees, or “square”. But you can use a file to bring it back to square. My marking & measuring buying guide explains how to check a square and also how to fix one that is “out of square”.
12. Buy a Sliding Bevel Square
A sliding bevel square (or “bevel gauge”) is used for scribing angles on your workpiece. Once set, a good sliding bevel square should be able to repeat that angle over and over again, like when you are laying out dovetails on a board face.
Not all sliding bevel squares are good at holding that angle, so make sure you read more in my marking & measuring buying guide before you purchase a bevel gauge.
13. Buy Two Pairs of Dividers (Compass)
Dividers (or compass) are also used for taking and repeating a measurement over and over again on a work piece. “Joiners” (or traditional woodworkers who build furniture) rarely take measurements with a tape measure when doing fine joinery work, but rather take a measurement with dividers then transfer that arbitrary (yet accurate) measurement to another work piece.
Dividers are also used for scribing arcs and much more. You should definitely have at least two “pair” of dividers because you regularly will be transferring more than one measurement at a time. I prefer a little 3″ pair and a larger 6″ or 9″ pair.
14. Buy a Marking Gauge
Like dividers, marking gauges are used for transferring a measurement and repeating it over and over again. A locking mechanism keeps the gauge from slipping and loosing that measurement. You cannot build furniture without at least one good sturdy marking gauge.
The wheel-style gauge that I recommend in my buying guide will allow you to not only mark one measurement, but two measurements at once, thus eliminating the need to purchase a separate mortise gauge. It’s nice to save money. But beware of the cheap marking gauges that I mention in my buying guide. They will be useless.
15. Buy a Folding Rule and/or Tape Measure
A “folding rule” (not “ruler”) is a predecessor to a tape measure, and allows you to take rough measurements when cutting boards, etc. If you’re on a tight budget, a small tape measure can be used for the same job of rough measurement (think lumber yard). I use both.
A nice vintage 24-inch wooden rule is so handy to have because it slips into your pocket and gives you quick measurements. They are pretty affordable, but you need to know what to look for so you don’t get a dudd. Yes…again, check my buying guide.
16. Buy a Marking Knife
A marking knife is used for marking where you will be cutting with your saws. For getting into tight spots (like dovetails) and making very accurate lines (which is vital for tight fitting joints) you need just the right marking knife. You would think that any old knife would work, but you would be wrong. I purchased several that didn’t work well.
Marking knives can get very expensive, but fortunately I found a very affordable knife ($10 or $15) that works perfectly. Check my marking & measuring buying guide to see what to look for (and what to avoid) when buying a marking knife.
17. Buy Sharpening Supplies
Having very sharp tools is one of the most important aspects of proper traditional woodworking. Many beginners think that they stink at woodworking, but usually they are just using dull (or improperly sharpened) hand tools. To start off with I recommend buying sharpening supplies for sharpening & honing your chisels and hand plane irons. You can learn saw sharpening in a few months (if you purchase a new sharpened saw).
I recommend buying (1) a grinder with a cool cutting stone (either hand crank or power), (2) a honing guide, (3) good quality water stones (read my buying guide for grit options and bad stones to avoid), and a diamond lapping plate, for flattening your water stones.
18. Buy a Wooden Mallet
A good wooden mallet is vital for traditional woodworking. I prefer the English-style Carpenter’s mallets, but you can also purchase a lighter carver’s mallet (not heavy enough for some projects).
Wooden mallets are mostly used for hitting your chisels when cutting joints (like dovetail joints or chopping mortises). You should never, never, never hit a chisel with a metal hammer. Buy a mallet that is made of fairly hard wood (e.g. beach wood) and that will feel well balanced in your hand.
19. Buy a Large Shoulder plane or Rabbet Plane
Rabbets are one of the most common joints, so I recommend buying a large shoulder plane, a rabbet plane, or a moving fillister plane. For beginners I recommend starting off with a large shoulder plane. Why? (1) it has so many uses, such as trimming tenons (& other joinery), cutting rabbets, removing waste for hand cut moldings, etc. (2) New shoulder planes come already sharp and tuned, which removes frustration for beginners.
I prefer the large size because it will cut the most sizes. Most of your traditional woodworking hand tools can be vintage/used, but vintage shoulder planes can be very difficult to get “square”, so I recommend spending the extra money on a new shoulder plane. See my recommendations in my hand plane buying guide:
20. Buy a few Clamps
Woodworking clamps hold your freshly glued up joints together until the glue hardens. To start off with I would recommend buying at least one quality “hand screw clamp” (around 10 or 12 inches) and a few bar-type clamps.
But before you purchase clamps, build your first project and put it together without glue. Then see how many clamps you think you will need to put enough pressure in all the right spots. Then proceed to purchase that number of clamps. Repeat this process on your next project, and purchase more clamps if needed. See my buying guide for different clamp types, uses, and my favorite brands.
21. Buy a Plow Plane
Grooves are one of the other most common joints that you will cut on many furniture projects (drawer & box bottoms, cabinet backs, etc.) so I recommend buying some sort of plow plane. Fortunately, everyone used plow planes, so they can be found for very low prices. You can either purchase a popular “Combination Plane” (like the Stanley No. 45) which performs many functions (but it’s more expensive), a simple metal plow plane (Stanley No. 248, Stanley No. 46, or Stanley No. 50), or a beautiful antique wooden screw arm plow plane (my favorite because the fence stays rigidly in place after you set it).
If you’re on a tight budget, then go with one of the simple antique Stanley metal plow planes (No. 248, No. 46, No. 50, etc.). Most vintage plow planes will do a great job plowing grooves. But if you want a fantastic plow plane, go for a wooden screw arm plow plane with a variety of cutters. It shouldn’t cost you more than $150, unless it’s made of some exotic wood.
BEYOND THE BASICS: JOSHUA FARNSWORTH’S COMPLETE HAND TOOL LIST:
Below you can toggle between my 3 lists of woodworking hand tools: (1) Most Urgent Hand Tools, (2) Semi-Urgent Hand Tools, and (3) Not-Urgent Hand Tools:
- Sturdy Workbench (self-made or purchased)
- No. 5 Jack Plane or No. 62 Low Angle Jack Plane
- Block plane (low angle is better)
- Panel Saw (Rip teeth)
- Panel Saw (Cross-cut teeth)
- Dovetail Saw (Rip-cut toothed)
- Carcass Saw (Cross-cut toothed)
- Tenon Saw (Rip-cut toothed)
- Miter box and miter saw
- Coping Saw
- Bevel edge bench chisels
- 1/4″ Mortising chisel
- 6″ Combination Square
- 12″ Try Square
- Sliding Bevel Square / Gauge
- Dividers / Compass (2+ pair)
- Marking gauge
- Folding Rule and/or Tape measure
- Marking knife
- Power or Hand Grinder w/ cool wheel
- Honing wet stones
- Diamond Lapping Plate (or Sandpaper on Melamine)
- Wood mallet
- Large Shoulder Plane
- Clamps (10″ Hand Screw, Parallel clamps)
- Wood or hide glue
- Smoothing Plane (No. 4 or No. 4 1/2)
- Jointer Plane (No. 7)
- Winding Sticks
- Brace & Auger bits
- Card Scraper
- Burnishing rod (sharpen card scraper)
- Paring Chisel
- Panel gauge
- Metal Holdfasts (Workbench)
- Bench dogs (Workbench)
- Plow Plane / Combination Plane
- Rabbet Plane or Moving Fillister Plane
- Egg beater drill and HSS bits
- Router plane
- Grinder tool rest
- Saw sharpening vice
- Saw files w/ handles
- Saw sets (fine and course)
- Saw jointer and bastard mill file
- Small beading molding plane
- Tongue & Groove plane
- Ovolo and Ogee molding planes
- Ceramic slip file set (for sharpening molding plane irons)
- Peen hammer (for adjusting molding planes)
- Diamond Grinding Wheel Dresser
- Wood or hide glue
- Carpenter’s Axe or Hewing Hatchet
- No. 62 Low-angle Jack plane
- 12″ Bow saw
- 6″ metal ruler
- Shooting board (make yourself)
- Bench hooks (make yourself)
- Cabinet Maker’s Rasp
- Modeller’s Rasp
- Diagonal testing stick
- White rubber mallet (assembly)
- Scrup plane (or just camber an old blade for No. 5 Jack Plane)
- Magnifying glass w/ light (for sharpening)
- Tramel points
- Saw bench pair (make yourself)
- Shave horse
- Draw knives
- froe & mallet
- Foot-powered lathe & turning tools
- Gouges & Carving tools
- Workbench tote
- Shop apron
- chisel roll (leather or fabric)
- Saw cases
- Tool chest (make yourself)
- Saw till / cabinet (make yourself)
- Hide glue/heated glue pot/paint brushes
WHERE TO FIND TRADITIONAL WOODWORKING HAND TOOLS?
Where (and where NOT) to buy NEW Hand Tools & Supplies?
I’ve purchased most of my new traditional woodworking tools & accessories from Georgia-based online retailer Highland Woodworking. By far, they carry the widest selection of new woodworking hand tools & accessories for people like me who love traditional hand tool woodworking. They also carry all the power tools for modern woodworkers. So I’ll link to Highland Woodworking most throughout my website.
I’m also very happy about their customer service and ability to answer questions intelligently (e.g. I was asking about recommendations for hatchets & axes). The people you speak with on the phone & via email are actual woodworkers. They are one of the few Lie-Nielsen tools re-sellers. Their prices are very good also. They also have a lot of great free tutorials on their website, blog, and online woodworking TV channel.
I also find Amazon to be a great source for many of the new tools and accessories. I use Amazon for so many other things, so I usually get free shipping. Plus, their return policy rocks.
“Toos for Working Wood” doesn’t have the huge selection that Highland Woodworking does, but Joel (the New York-based owner) carries (and sometimes manufactures under “Gramercy Tools”) a lot of specialized historic reproduction hand tools & accessories that you can’t find anywhere else. He appears to follow Chris Schwarz’s recommendations and carries those items. Smart guy.
Heirloom Quality Manufactures
Both companies make quality tools, but I prefer Lie-Nielsen tools for most of the core tools like hand saws and planes. They put a lot of effort into taking old proven tool models and improve upon them with attention to beauty. Veritas has some great tools, but goes more for function than beauty. I won’t relate the joke that Roy Underhill told me about Veritas hand tools, but it was very funny. Veritas has some great measuring gauges and accessories, and some fantastic specialty planes.
Where NOT to Buy New Hand Tools?
Although I still like to pop into a Wood Craft store occasionally, I really don’t see too many good brands of heirloom quality hand tools. They’ve got a lot of great power tools & accessories, but lack high end hand tools. Lie-Nielsen stopped selling their tools at Wood Craft back in 2009 (read about it here). Now Wood Craft is selling their own sub-par tool line called “WoodRiver”. These tools haven’t received high reviews.
Where (and where NOT) to buy VINTAGE Hand Tools & Supplies?
I personally have fallen in love with “the hunt” for amazing vintage hand tool bargains. So where do I look?
Yes, there are still some good deals to be found on eBay. But you just need to know what to look for. You can also get a much better deal if you’re willing to refurbish rusty hand tools (which I absolutely love anyway, so it’s a win-win).
I had done a bunch of research on Disston hand saws, so I was able to buy a lot of 7 saws for $30, among which there were some very high-end saws. I got this great deal because I could spot some of the characteristics that others couldn’t. So checkout all my buying guides so you will know what to look for.
eBay is also a great place to learn which brands & models are desirable. Here’s a hint: search for the type of tool you’re looking for (e.g. “dovetail saw”) and narrow the searches by “Sold Listings” to see which brands & models are the most popular…they’re usually popular for a good reason.
I personally haven’t had great luck at flea markets, but I’ve talked with people who have gotten some real bargains this way. But I still always stop to look anyway…just in case.
I have actually found Craigslist to be quite helpful with finding bargains. I run a free online listing in my local area telling people that I collect and use traditional woodworking hand tools, and that I’m interested in buying vintage tools at bargain prices. I’ve found great tools, made friends, and gotten free wood through this method!
Good Country Folks
I live in the shadows of the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia, a place with plenty of amazing country folks who love talking about farming, shooting, blue grass music, and almost anything else.
I have found some great tools by asking these folks if they know anyone who might have old tools. This is how I find my best deals, because most of these people aren’t looking to gouge me. They’d rather have a good home for their ancestor’s tools than spend hours trying to get top dollar online. Just be fair and really show a genuine interest in these people. You’ll love em’!
Some of the best deals for vintage hand tools are found at tool meets, usually organized regionally under the Midwest Tool Collectors Association. Click here to find a chapter near you. Many of the tool collectors want to encourage new traditional woodworkers, so they often cut sweet deals.
If you’ve got an inside track to estate sales, I’ve heard that they are one of the best sources for finding great prices on antique woodworking hand tools. But of course, you have to compete with all those antique dealers & shop owners. But if you go through my following hand tool buying guide pages, you’ll have a major upper hand on antique dealers.
Vintage Hand Tool Dealers
There’s not many of these guys still around, but I’ve purchased some good tools from Ed Lebetkin, who has a shop above Roy Underhill’s Woodwright School in Pittsboro, North Carolina.
If you can’t stop by the shop, you can usually just email Ed and tell him what you’re looking for: edlebetkin (at) gmail (dot) com. A lot of Ed’s tools are sharpened, which will save you some frustration if you’re new to sharpening. Tell him I sent you! There are some other guys like Ed out there who send out regular tool list emails.
Ed actually pointed me to Jim Bode Antique Tools for some chisels. I was able to find “pig sticker” mortise chisels that I couldn’t find anywhere else, and for reasonable prices w/ free shipping. Ed told me that Jim Bode often accepts offers.
Where NOT to buy vintage hand tools?
I get so ticked off every time I walk into an antique store and ask to see their hand tools. These people look up their items on eBay and mark them up 1,000 %!! I’ve seen absolute junk, in terrible condition, listed at astronomical prices. I’m convinced that they sell anything they can on eBay, and then what they can’t sell on eBay they try to sell in their antique store. So you’re better off not wasting your time. I think they sell hand tools to wealthy people who are only looking to use vintage hand tools as decorations. Oh well.NEXT PAGE >>>
Hand Tool Buying Guide Shortcuts:
- #1 Buying Guide: Workbench & Tool Storage
- #2 Buying Guide: Layout, Marking, & Measuring Tools
- #3 Buying Guide: Handplanes
- #4 Buying Guide: Handsaws
- #5 Buying Guide: Chisels
- #6 Buying Guide: Sharpening & Honing Supplies
- #7 Buying Guide: Mallets & Hammers
- #8 Buying Guide: Hand Drills, Braces, & Bits
- #9 Buying Guide: Tools for Curved Work
- #10 Buying Guide: Files, Rasps, & Sanding
- #11 Buying Guide: Fastening, Gluing, & Clamping
- #12 Buying Guide: Carving Hand Tools
- #13 Buying Guide: Tools for Green Woodworking